Beginning tonight (October 26, 2016), and over two more nights more in the coming two months, astronomers will use the Green Bank radio telescope in rural West Virginia to observe Tabby’s Star. Tabby herself – astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, formerly of Yale and now at Louisiana State University – will be there to help lead the observations. Her Ted Talk earlier this year created a sensation when she called this star “the most mysterious in the universe.” Beginning tonight, the Breakthrough Listen project at University of California Berkeley is devoting eight hours per night for three nights to observing Tabby’s Star with the Green Bank telescope. The astronomers admit it’s a long-shot, but they want to see if this telescope can detect signals from a possible extraterrestrial civilization that might – or might not – reside on a planet orbiting this star.
It’s the light of this star that has astronomers – and the rest of us – perplexed and interested. Although astronomers have wrangled over the details about Tabby’s Star throughout 2016 – there no denying that its light behaves in a way astronomers have never seen before. It dims for days at a time, by as much as 22 percent, at irregular intervals. Stars do dim, but not in the way this star does, astronomers say.
It appears that something is blocking the light of Tabby’s Star, which, by the way, is officially known as KIC 8462852. Astronomers know that – whatever that something is – it isn’t a planet.
They know that because whatever’s doing the blocking isn’t round and doesn’t appear to orbit the star in a fixed period of time.
An explanation for the strange dimming of Tabby’s Star, the explanation that has everyone so intrigued, is that an alien civilization may be building a megastructure – a Dyson sphere, designed to capture the energy of the star for the civilization’s use – around it.
This possibility is remote, but so far it can’t be dismissed. It’s the reason astronomers just can’t look away.
Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and co-director of Breakthrough Listen at Berkeley, will also be on hand at Green Bank tonight, helping with the Tabby’s Star observations. He said in a statement:
Everyone, every SETI program telescope, I mean every astronomer that has any kind of telescope in any wavelength that can see Tabby’s star has looked at it. It’s been looked at with Hubble, it’s been looked at with Keck, it’s been looked at in the infrared and radio and high energy, and every possible thing you can imagine, including a whole range of SETI experiments. Nothing has been found.
What can the Green Bank radio telescope bring to the table? Siemion said:
The Green Bank Telescope is the largest fully steerable radio telescope on the planet, and it’s the largest, most sensitive telescope that’s capable of looking at Tabby’s star given its position in the sky. We’ve deployed a fantastic new SETI instrument that connects to that telescope, that can look at many gigahertz of bandwidth simultaneously and many, many billions of different radio channels all at the same time so we can explore the radio spectrum very, very quickly.
He said the results of the Green Bank observations made tonight will not be known for more than a month, because of the massive data analysis required to pick out patterns in the radio emissions.
By the way, telescope time – and powerful new instruments – cost money, but, in this case, there’s money to be had. Russian internet investor Yuri Milner created the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, which funded Breakthrough Listen in 2015 to the tune of $100 million over 10 years.
Finally, Siemion added that he and his colleagues are skeptical that the star’s unique behavior is a sign of an advanced civilization, but that they just can’t not take a look.
Bottom line: Observations begin October 26, 2016 with the Green Bank radio telescope.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.